ALTHOUGH he went out of his way to deny it, acting Justice Secretary Alberto Agra would not have reversed himself without the media and public outrage provoked by his April 16 resolution.

That resolution found no probable cause for the inclusion of two members of the Ampatuan clan in the multiple murder charges arising from the November 23, 2009 Maguindanao Massacre in which 57 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers were killed.

Agra now says, in another resolution he issued May 5, that there is probable cause that the two Ampatuans were part of the conspiracy to kill the 57, or themselves took part in the killings.

He claims to have based this resolution on new evidence and in his discovery that there were holes in the alibis of the two Ampatuans. But the more probable reason is that Malacanang ordered him to include Zaldy and Akmad Ampatuan in the charges. After all, a veritable horde of lawyers had previously pointed out how easily an alibi can be concocted. And a Malacanang subaltern had ordered him earlier to review his first resolution, which even for Agra must have come across as more than a hint of Malacanang displeasure.

Not that the (hopefully) soon-to-be-evicted Palace occupants had experienced a Paulinian conversion from being the prime promoters of injustice to justice’s most ardent partisans, but that the firestorm Agra’s April 16 resolution unleashed against Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was totally unnecessary.

Malacanang has ignored public protests before, but only if an anticipated benefit to its chief residents was worth the price of public condemnation. This time it wasn’t, and one can imagine Agra getting a dressing down for so hastily absolving the Ampatuans concerned rather than allowing the courts to do it, or for the cases to drag on for years until both they, the Ampatuans and the Massacre itself are forgotten.

While that may yet happen, five months after the event Agra totally underestimated the public and media reaction to his April 16 resolution. That misreading was apparently based on his perception that the Massacre was just one more killing out of the many so rampant in this lawless country. And yet the Maguindanao — or more appropriately, the Ampatuan (town) — Massacre was not only the worst attack on journalists and media workers in history; it was also the worst instance of election- related violence in the Philippines.

Neither the former nor the latter were mean feats. Journalists have been killed before in places as far apart as Somalia and Russia, and so have politicians’ supporters been killed in the Philippines. But not in such numbers, and not in one incident in one day.

Since he issued that resolution — and since his probable rebuke — Agra seems to have gained some appreciation of the Massacre’s significance and its impact on the families of the 57 people whom Mrs. Arroyo’s erstwhile — or is it current? — allies are suspected of slaughtering last November 23.

But hold that thought. Agra’s announcement that he has solicited funds for scholarships for the children of the 57 Massacre victims sounded exactly like the kind of self-serving exhibitionism characteristic of someone who can’t stop talking about himself.

Someone should tell Arroyo’s 2004 election lawyer that resolving the Ampatuan Massacre is not about himself but about the need to stop the killings — of political activists, human rights workers, journalists, judges, lawyers, and yes, even politicians and their supporters — that has made a mockery of the country’s so-called justice system, and cost this country some of the best and brightest of its sons and daughters.

It’s about living in a country where people risk life and limb each time they leave their homes — or even while they’re in their homes, as in the case of Sultan Kudarat journalist Marlene Esperat who was killed in her own home and in front of her children.

It’s about a society in which policemen can’t be distinguished from the criminals they’re supposed to catch, as in a number of journalist and activist murders. It’s about a society in which state security forces end up in the private armies of warlords, as in Maguindanao and about a hundred other places.

It’s about a place where people can’t express themselves without being threatened with imprisonment or death, and where they can’t decide who to vote for without being bribed, harassed, intimidated, or murdered. It’s about civilization.

Sometimes an event in a country of mind-numbing complexity serves to illuminate the vast contradictions driving its decline and impending fall. But it may also help guide men and women of goodwill reach the road to its transformation.

The Ampatuan Massacre is a milestone in the troubled history of this country for the bright light it threw on the forces of evil a malevolent and self-serving political class has spawned but swept into the unlit corners of the pretend democracy over which it presides. It has also merged, for the first time, the major issues of journalist murders and political violence, and thus provides a signal opportunity for this country to address both. This is the context about which Agra and his ilk are clueless.

Not so the public and the media, both of which have learned that just as governance is too important to be left to the greasy hands of politicians, justice is too crucial in issue to the making of a civilized society to be left to the clueless bureaucrats of a misnamed justice system. It was the media and journalist groups and the public as a whole, rather than Agra and Malacanang, which kept the two Ampatuans in the list of the accused in the immense outrage that the Ampatuan Massacre was. It is they who must see to it that no further outrage against the victims as well as against press freedom and the tattered remnants of Philippine democracy are committed by those who, while claiming to be guarding both, are the first to undermine them.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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